Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Death, Judgment, Afterlife

For students in various Humanities classes, or courses in ancient civilizations, the essay question about death, judgment, and afterlife is assigned so regularly that its predictability makes it ready material for a joke. Yet it remains a central question in modern cultures and ancient cultures.

The Egyptian concept of "maat" (transliterated into English with various spellings) is a good example. The concept is sometimes personified into a goddess of sorts, and other times treated as an abstract principle. In either case, the fiction of weighing the human heart against a feather on a balance remains a powerful metaphor, and crystalizes not only the Egyptian notion of judgment, but also that of numerous other cultures, ancient and modern.

By contrast, the New Testament offers a complex and confusing idea of judgment, which - however interpreted - is rather different from the Egyptian one. Jesus offers us a tension between his famous dictum "Do not judge, or you too will be judged" and his willingness to judge: he tell a woman caught in adultery, "Go now and leave your life of sin." Whether one agrees or disagrees with Jesus, an interpretive challenge presents itself as we seek to create some harmony out of this tension: how do we find the consistency in the apparent, but merely apparent, contradiction?

A follower of Jesus, named variously Saul and Paul, gives us a clue in a letter he wrote to early followers of Jesus living in Rome:

Now if you feel inclined to set yourself up as a judge of those who sin, let me assure you, whoever you are, that you are in no position to do so. For at whatever point you condemn others you automatically condemn yourself, since you, the judge, commit the same sins. God’s judgment, we know, is utterly impartial in its action against such evil-doers. What makes you think that you who so readily judge the sins of others, can consider yourself beyond the judgment of God?
We see here the same tension: a command not to judge, and - in the same breath - a clear judgment that some are, in fact, sinning. The determination that someone is sinning is itself a judgment. So how can we reconcile Paul's command not to judge, delivered in a bundle with a clear judgment. The irony is compressed: we are commanded not to judge those who sin. By identifying them as those who sin, has not Paul already judged them?

We can resolve the tension existing in Paul's words - and the words of Jesus - by noting a careful distinction: We are commanded not to judge people. We are left free to judge actions, indeed, encouraged to judge actions. In this distinction, not only can we resolve the internal tension within the New Testament, but we can also capture the exact nature of the different between Jesus and the Egyptian concept of maat.

If I judge a man's actions as evil, I am still prohibited from judging the man himself as evil. Here introduced is a distinction between agent and action, between the person and the what he does. If everyone who does an evil act is reckoned as evil, then all humans would be evil, because all humans, sooner or later, do the wrong thing. If all who do something right are reckoned as good, then all people will be called good, because everybody, sooner or later, does something right. Paul and Jesus are acknowledging the ethical reality that every human performs a mixture of actions - some good, some bad. We can sort out the actions, but we cannot label the individual.

Instead of sorting humanity into two groups - as the Egyptian maat does - the New Testament places all people into the same boat: morally equivocal, committed both virtuous deeds and sins. The Egyptian worldview creates two classes of humans, with the inevitable if unintended result that they will be pitted against each other; the New Testament offers a unifying notion, that all humans find themselves in the same ethical predicament - a morally ambiguous nature - and looking to the same solution - to cast themselves upon the mercy of a deity.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What History Can Tell Us, And What It Can't

It is clear that religion is one of the driving forces of history; many significant events and trends are fueled by faith: the abolition of slavery in America, the right of women to vote, the environmental movement to protect the earth, freedom of speech and of the press, various forms of aid to developing countries, and international negotiating organizations seeking to avoid war. Many other examples could be added. Some of these are obviously more religious than others, but historical investigation will find that all of them originated in a worldview shaped by faith and by sacred text.

But what can history tell us about religion? We are instructed to strive ever more for a neutral objectivity - studying religion in history, and the history of religion, can be done in this way - but for someone who is the product of American popular culture, it is a foreign notion. History can describe for us those events and trends, and their emergence from a particular spiritual tradition. Indeed, history is obliged to do so. History cannot, however, evaluate truth claims made by specific religions, because those claims are sometimes about things bigger than history, beyond history, and embracing history from without. Walther Eichrodt writes that

history can say nothing about the final truth of a matter; that is, it is unable to make any claims concerning its validity for our current existence or its significance for our worldview. To the extent that historical research is able to view and to describe more precisely any event - also anything of an intellectual scope - only within a system of relations, its assertions about a historical entity always remain relative; that is, they have meaning only in relation to other entities and only in this sense command assent. To judge regarding what is true and what is false, what has an absolute claim to validity and what is worthless, continues to be reserved fundamentally to the science of values, to philosophy or to dogmatics.
History can tell us, for example, which religions lead more often to war, and which ones lead more often to peace; history can tell us which religions are inclined to expand the dignity and rights of women, and which ones are inclined to minimize women and their social roles; history can tell us which religions see an essential value in every human life, a value which demands recognition, and which religions see some human lives as worth less than others, and therefore expendable.

But history cannot tell us which religions are true, and which are false; history cannot tell us which beliefs are good, and which are evil. These determinations belong to a higher academic discipline. The historian may narrate the roles of various spiritual traditions in history, but he may not make value judgements about those traditions. Those judgements are to be made by the philosopher and the theologian.

History shows us that religion is the engine of history, that faith propels great historical movements; but history must refrain from deciding which religion is ultimately the true religion. Determining what is 'true religion' - this cannot be left in the realm of mere opinion: this is the task of rational investigation, close textual study, and academic theology.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Era of the Castle

The Middle Ages was a time of creativity and innovation - and certainly not "The Dark Ages" or reign of superstition and ignorance which old history books tell it to be. The inventiveness of scientists and rulers, of philosophers and bankers during the Medieval centuries was born of necessity. The fall of the Roman Empire (at least the western half of it) created a power vacuum, and even an environment of personal danger, until the institutions and concepts of the Middle Ages could offer a better social organization principle to replace it. Historian Irma Simonton Black sees the emergence of a safer, and intellectually more stimulating, culture symbolized in the castle,
a large stone structure surrounded by walls and topped with towers. The castle might be built up on a hill so it could be defended easily, or it might be encircled with a wide ditch, called a moat, which had to be crossed to reach its gates.
Such a structure was not a family home for the royals: it was a small village unto itself. A community which included the various crafts and skills needed to be relatively self-reliant and sometimes even isolated.
A castle was home to many people. Inside its walls, in a large central building made of stone, lived a noble, his family, and his knights. Servants and soldiers belonging to the noble lived outside in the courtyard or bailey, in a cluster of small wooden buildings. Here food was prepared, tools and arms were made and repaired. If the people who lived inside the castle walls wanted to go outside them, they crossed a drawbridge which was kept lowered by day, except in times of war.
The legal concept of 'citizenship' as we now know it arose during this time, and the technical term for citizen literally meant "one who lived inside the walls of the castle" (Bürger). Some large castles would have well over a hundred permanent residents, and thus truly be societies unto themselves. This arrangement arose from the defensive needs immediately after the fall of the Roman Empire in the year 476. When the Middle Ages fully emerged, the actually need for this physical security diminished, but the castle remained as a symbol. Yet the society of those who lived in the village surrounded by the protective walls interacted with those who lived in the less secure world beyond:
Outside the castle walls lived peasants in their huts. If there was an attack, they protected themselves by fleeing over the drawbridge and inside. These peasants were known as serfs and they worked the noble's land.
Indeed, the noble was obliged, by common law and by sacred oath, to offer protection to the serfs who lived outside the walls. Here we see a truly Medieval notion: the moral and legal duty to assist in the defense of others. Although this setup may seem strange or romantic to us, "such a way of life" was
the only sensible arrangement. It came about because of events that happened hundreds of years before, when the Roman Empire collapsed.
Determined both to rescue themselves from the chaos of a power vacuum, and to build a more reasonable society than the Romans had, the people of central Europe observed first-hand the fall of the empire, and took from the old Roman structure the few ideas which were practical; abandoning other, less useful, Roman patterns, they fabricated the remainder of their new social order from their inherited Germanic traditions. (By way of explanation, most of the cultures of central and western Europe were Germanic, but not German: France is named after the Frankish dynasties, the Germanic royal families who ruled it; England's language and culture were nearly identical to those of central Europe until the invasions of 1066 A.D. and later.)
The northern tribes that settled on the Roman lands in Europe were bands of fighters who followed one leader in battle. In return, the leader or chief supported his fighting men with what he took from the people he conquered. This system of personal loyalty to a chief was the basis for a way of living called feudalism.
Feudalism sometimes has a bad image in older history books: the word 'feudal' is even sometimes used in a negative sense. In reality, the feudal system offered a vast improvement over the political structures of the Roman empire. A centralized system, the old empire was unapproachable for those living out in the countryside; the emperor gave absolute commands, and no questioning or negotiating was possible. In feudalism, a de-centralized system, a local 'lord' was approachable - you could negotiate with him, and his authority was based on negotiation with those below him and those above him: a flexible system.

In this way, feudalism was also superior to the absolute monarchies which would follow it in later centuries. An autocrat like Louis XIV would not have been possible in a feudal system.

Feudalism, or the feudal system, as it was often called, grew gradually. In the very beginning, each lord had his vassals, or followers, who lived in his castle as a kind of personal bodyguard. Maintaining his vassals was very expensive for the lord. So when his vassals wanted lands and castles of their own, the lord was glad to assign holdings to them.
In this way, the lord's vassals got their own estates, could support themselves, and so relieved the lord of significant expenses.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Demographic Grids

Sorting things into categories is a simply skill we all learned quite young: I can sort a child's building by color - red, blue, yellow - or by shape - square, triangle, circle. I can sort them by both at once, creating a nine-by-nine grid. The same is true of people: we can sort by age (young, middle-aged, old), or we can sort by height (short, medium, tall); and we can sort by both at once.

This simple technique is put to interesting use in a complex situation by author Joel Rosenberg. Looking at the population of various Middle East countries, and analyzing the political and military conflicts there, he first found three categories based views of religion:

The Radicals, who say that "Islam is the answer, jihad is the way."

The Reformers, who say that "Islam is the answer, but jihad is not the way."

The Revivalists, who say that "Islam is not the answer, and jihad is not the way."

Each of the three groups above are a significant factor inside the various Islamic nations in the Middle East. But within each of them, further subdivisions can be made, leading to our nine-by-nine grid.
The Resisters are leaders of Muslim-majority countries who show little evidence of wanting serious social or ideological change of any kind. While Muslims themselves, they do not want the kind of fundamental, sweeping changes advocated by the Radicals, Reformers, or Revivalists. To the contrary, they resist change; generally speaking, their mission is to hold power for as long as possible.

The Reticent include leaders of Muslim-majority countries or territories who have leanings toward one movement or another but have not fully committed. They do the two-step, dancing for a season with one partner, then shifting to another.

The Rank-and-File, finally, comprise the vast majority of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims. They do not run countries. Individually, they generally have little or no wealth or power. But they are enormously important.

We see, then, that any analysis of the Middle East which accounts for fewer than nine major categories, and presumably numerous other smaller categories, will fail to do justice to the complexity of the situation.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Understanding Islam

Although we may think that the world's attention has been more directed toward Islam since the attacks of September 11, 2001, this is far from true: long before that date, the world began to consider the nature of Islam: as far back as 1979, headlines around the world announced that Americans in Iran had been taken hostage, where they would be held prisoner for over a year with no legal or diplomatic remedy. Between these two dates is a long series of bombings and attacks around the world.

In the face of this radicalism, however, author Joel Rosenberg offers a shocking opinion:

The vast majority of the 1.3 billion Muslims on the planet are not Radicals. They do not believe in waging jihad against the West. They do not condone sending their sons and daughters to be suicide bombers to kill Christians, Jews, and apostate Muslims, among others. They do not want to annihilate Judeo-Christian civilization as we know it or take over the world. They are, by and large, quiet, peaceful people. They want to raise their children in decent schools to get decent jobs and live respectable, productive, God-honoring lives.
Despite the images in the daily news of Islamic terrorists, Rosenberg is telling us that most Muslims are not fanatics who insist on following every directive in the Qur'an. This is a radically different image of Islam than that offered by, for example, U of M's Professor Ed Sareth, who writes that Islam is "fueling conflicts that could threaten humanity." Rosenberg disagrees.
Western leaders should be commended - not condemned - for affirming the peaceful nature of most Muslims. Why insult Muslims who are unengaged in jihad?
Rosenberg would side, then, with President George W. Bush's numerous comments that Muslims are peaceful friends. Bush was widely criticized in the weeks following the attacks on the World Trade Center for not voicing more anti-Islamic sentiments. But he continued to point out that millions of Muslims live peaceably in the United States; he said that our argument was not with Islam, but with terrorists. These distinctions grow more complex, however, when we remember that the difference here is between orthodox Islam, with its insistence on a literal faithfulness to the Qur'an and the physical violent jihad it entails, and nominal Muslims, who are not interested in any form of violence or terrorism at all, but rather exhibit the civil virtues that any society desires.
Critics should keep in mind that Western leaders are making these points, in part, both to build and to strengthen political and and military alliances with government leaders throughout the Muslim world who are willing to side with Western governments against the Radicals.
Cultural understanding becomes all the more complex with mixed with diplomatic agendas. Discussions of these complex interactions between religions, cultures, societies and government are necessary, while at the same time frustrating: they will, of necessity, raise more questions than they answer:
While it is certainly accurate to say that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people, is it also true that Islam itself is an intrinsically peaceful religion? In other words, are Muslim and Western leaders accurate in asserting that Islam is a religion of peace, not a religion that calls for jihad against the infidels? Are Radicals, in fact, "hijacking" Islam and in the process "smearing" its good name? If so, how can the Radicals claim that "Islam is the answer, and jihad is the way" if there is no basis for their beliefs in the Qur'an, the guidbook for all Muslims?
The world will probably be watching the interaction between peaceful, moderate, nominal Muslims and orthodox, violent, radical Muslims for decades to come.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Moderates vs. Radicals

Although the attacks on September 11, 2001 brought a new intensity to the study of Islam, the world's attention had already long been directed to the political impact of radical Muslims: the 1972 attack on the Munich Olympics and the 1979 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iran being merely two of many examples.

One question lingers: what about the moderates? We know that there are many peaceful and friendly people in America who call themselves Muslims - people who would never dream of attacking or killing. We know that a moderate form of Islam exists in the United States. But what about in the Middle East? Is there a chance that moderates live in places like Saudi Arabia or Iran?

Joel Rosenberg, from Syracuse University, offers evidence that moderates exist, even in the Middle East:

A ferocious battle is raging for the heart and soul of the Muslim world.

One side is the theology of the Radicals, which as we have seen teachers that true Islam requires violent men to wage violent jihad against apostates and infidels in the name of Allah.

On the other side is the theology of the Reformers, which teaches that true Islam is a religion of peace, that the Qur'an is a book of peace, and that the Radicals are perverting Islam to their own fascist, power-hungry ends.

Do we believe Rosenberg? Is there a chance that moderate Muslims exist, not only in America, but also in the Middle East? Are there individuals and groups willing to depart from the militant heritage of Islamic traditions? And if they do exist there, are there enough of them to make a political difference?

The world will spend a few years pondering these questions; we don't know the answers yet, but those answers will influence the lives of millions, for good or for evil. We know that there are moderate Muslims in America. Let us hope that they exist elsewhere, and in large number.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Counterfeits Damage Economies

Fake money has always been a problem, ever since the first coins were minted thousands of years ago. The legal principles and economic harms are the same today, but the technology is different. Dr. Levon A. Saryan, a materials scientist in Wisconsin, reports that

fake U.S. Trade dollars [were] recently shipped from China to a recipient near Chicago, bring[ing] into sharp focus a growing epidemic.

Counterfeits have traditionally been difficult to make and easy to detect; advances in technology, however, are reversing that situation: fake coins are now easy to make and difficult to detect:

Most of these fakes are not hard to identify in a crowd; they have certain diagnostic features that give them away. Gradually, however, the quality of these fakes has improved to the point that experts are being routinely deceived.

These sham coins are not the work a few lone criminals, hiding in basements or abandoned warehouses. They are being produced in a sophisticated manner by entire factories. There are multiple such operations, including

one of the largest fake coin factories in China, the Big Tree Coin Factory in Fujian Province, owned and operated by Lin Ciyun. The presses in this factory were originally used in a U.S. Mint facility, then transferred to China in the early 1900s for their coinage production needs. Later, in the mid 1950s, the Chinese government scrapped the presses and sold them to private buyers. Mr. Lin bought at least some of the presses and now uses them to produce (by his admission) over 100,000 forged coins per month. With the assistance of a handful of expert machinists, he is able to strike coins at exactly the same pressure and technical specifications as those used in 19th century U.S. mints.

Remember, these coins are worth hundreds of dollars each. These aren't the quarters and dimes we use in everyday vending machines to buy Coke or Pepsi. These are also highly illegal, because such coinage is the legal tender of the land. These operations are, then, both damaging to the U.S. economy, and a direct serious violation of national and international law.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Nature, Nurture, and ... ?

The ancient psychological debate, which aspects of our mind are primarily formed by genetics and heredity, and which aspects are mainly formed by our experience of objects and events in our environment, is being renewed by developments in the field of prenatal psychology. A recent book by Annie Murphy Paul, with the title Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, explores how everything from our taste in music to our body weight is influenced neither by our gene pool, nor by our life experiences, but rather by our prenatal encounters.

The fact that babies can hear, and hear well, long before birth, and through an inch or two of maternal flesh, means that children are born having already heard much: music, voices, etc. Psychologists have long known that infants are able, upon birth, to recognize the voices of their mothers. But it is now clear that familiarity with, and tastes in, music are also so formed.

Separately, experiences in the womb also act as switches, turning on or off various individual genes. Thus the diet of the mother with shape the metabolism of the child. An adult's weight problem may due, not his psychology and environment, nor strictly to his genes, but rather to events which activated some of his genes, but not others, in the nine months he spend in the womb.

The field of prenatal psychology will cause much re-thinking of various sub-disciplines within traditional psychology and psychiatry.

Multiculturalism Creates Hatred

In accord with the law of unintended consequences, official efforts to promote harmony and tolerance actually foster the very opposite: attempts to generate acceptance instead give rise to bigotry and hatred. Although this occurs mainly in America, we can see it in other nations too, as Anthony Daniels writes:

Of course, a large part of the problem is that patriotism in Britain has been left to the brutes: the kind of ignorant savages who tattoo a bulldog on their biceps and “Made in England” round their nipples, and who in equal measure revolt and terrorize the cheaper resorts of the Mediterranean. The intellectual’s equation of patriotism with xenophobia, and pride in past achievement with an arrogant superiority complex, has left a population demoralized and without any belief in its own nation. George Orwell saw this happening a long time ago; it has created a vacuum for the English Defence League to fill. Multiculturalism is the other side of the English Defence League coin.

In a well-meaning attempt to discourage a nasty form of nationalism, multicultural gurus have instead inhibited a healthy type of patriotism. Multiculturalism has deterred the educated classes away from a nuanced and intellectually perceptive appreciation of one's native land - which is healthy patriotism and never excludes a sincere appreciation of other nations. While the intellectual classes are embarrassed to point out anything remotely good or positive about their native land, the brutes and bigots rush in to claim superiority for the homeland over others. The growth of a healthy patriotism would have prevented the expansion of nasty nationalism. Multiculturalism

is a sentimental and harmful doctrine that turns the mind to mush, is evidence of an underlying indifference to the real lives of people, and is a provider of pseudo-work for lots of people such as community organizers.

Those who allegedly promote multiculturalism are, themselves, both ignorant of culture in general, and lacking in the desire or the ability to cure that ignorance:

Multiculturalists are seldom really interested in the culture of others. Very few of them read book in foreign languages, for example, let alone immerse themselves in the Pali scriptures or the writings of the Sufi. I don't blame them for this: it is the work of a lifetime to be able to do so, and we each have only one lifetime, to say nothing of the limitations of ability and inclination. But let us at least not pretend that our interest in other cultures extends much beyond their cuisine.

Not only does multiculturalism, then, promote a brutish form of nationalism among those who perceive themselves as "on the defensive" or "host cultures," but among those who view themselves as "immigrant cultures," it promotes a cynical view that those who claim to understand them in fact do not understand them. Those who claim to speak on behalf of an immigrant ethnic group are discounted by the majority of that group, who see the lack of cultural understanding, and exploited as dupes by a minority of that group, who see them as useful fools. Modern multiculturalism is largely an ideology of those who lack precisely that cultural understanding which they claim to promote.

The net effect is that a greater distance is created between cultural groups: instead of a coming together, more obstacles to community are created.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Obama Not Invited?

The biggest wedding of the twenty-first century (so far) occurred in London on April 29, 2011, when Kate Middleton married Prince William. Pointedly, President Barack Obama was not invited. What was the cause of this snub, made more clear when the leaders of forty other nations were invited, and in light of the fact that President Ronald Reagan was invited to the last royal wedding in 1981?

Two actions by Obama seemed to have triggered the situation: first, his dismissive gesture regarding a carved bust of Sir Winston Churchill, which he returned to the English who had lent it to him to display at the White House. Second, his presentation to the Queen of England of an iPod loaded with speeches given by Obama at various events. These two diplomatic blunders were apparently enough to remove any possibility that Obama would be a guest at the royal wedding.

Diplomats around the world noted that Obama failed to extend the usual diplomatic courtesies to Prime Minister Brown's official state visits to Washington. There was no joint statement issued at the press conference, and other niceties - state dinners, photo opportunities, exchanges of symbolic gifts - were curtailed. Why direct such shabby treatment toward England? The reason is not clear, but the effects of it are: Obama was not invited to the royal wedding.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Gender Roles and Social Structures

Human nature is a constant in history. From Hammurabi to Hubert Humphrey, from Babylon to Boston, people are people, and they do the things that people do: they love, they hate, they buy, they sell, they ask questions, and they answer questions. In a diverse array of constantly-changing settings, human nature is one of the fixed points.

Part of human nature is gender. Masculinity and femininity are also constants - societies have been compose of men and women since history began, and it will always be that way. But different societies construct different contexts around those two foundations.

At Yale, sociologist Stephen B. Clark concluded that "men have a natural tendency to avoid social responsibility."

Some civilizations have built social structures in such a way as to encourage men to take more responsibility.

Other civilizations have enabled men to be irresponsible (at the cost of placing greater burdens upon women).

This gives us an interpretive framework - a lens - through which we can view and understand various societies at various times. It also explains why, for example, we see trends in which the majority of responsible roles in a society are filled by one gender or another. In many high schools today, the class officers and student council reveal a clear trend: why are these roles filled largely by females? Why don't males seem to have much interest in assuming leadership roles in some circumstances? Perhaps because they've discovered that leadership is work, and they have not been trained to apply themselves to difficult tasks.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Politics, Sin, and Redemption

It is a commonplace that American politics in the first decade of the twenty-first century has been sometimes nasty and polarized; equally familiar are the calls for politeness in public discourse. Yet a call for politeness does not by itself draw forth the civility it desires, and one cannot enforce courtesy via police methods. New York Times columnist David Brooks asks about origins of manners:

Civility is a tree with deep roots, and without the roots, it can’t last. So what are those roots? They are failure, sin, weakness and ignorance.

It is not our virtue or nobility which creates courtesy, but rather it is our human nature - flawed and imperfect - which gives rise to civility - or, more precisely, the awareness that because of our human nature, we need and receive grace, mercy, and forgiveness. One who is constantly aware of his flaws, further aware that his flaws are apparent to others, and who finally aware that others are forgiving his flaws and allowing him to participate in society - such a one is very inclined to respect the habits of civil behavior, knowing that civil behavior is what keeps him a part of society, and not an outcast:

Every sensible person involved in politics and public life knows that their work is laced with failure. Every column, every speech, every piece of legislation and every executive decision has its own humiliating shortcomings. There are always arguments you should have made better, implications you should have anticipated, other points of view you should have taken on board.

Because it is our very human nature which causes us to err, it is inevitable that we will do so. Truth is broader and grander than our minds can comprehend, than our words can express, and than our actions can copy, so we will necessarily fall short of it.

Moreover, even if you are at your best, your efforts will still be laced with failure. The truth is fragmentary and it’s impossible to capture all of it. There are competing goods that can never be fully reconciled. The world is more complicated than any human intelligence can comprehend.

Forgiveness often flows to us through, and is announced to us by, our fellow citizens. Forgiveness is a necessary ingredient in the culture of any political society.

But every sensible person in public life also feels redeemed by others. You may write a mediocre column or make a mediocre speech or propose a mediocre piece of legislation, but others argue with you, correct you and introduce elements you never thought of. Each of these efforts may also be flawed, but together, if the system is working well, they move things gradually forward.

The meaning of mercy is that we don't get the censure we deserve: and grace is receiving the accept we don't deserve. This is the moral economy of a society which understands that we cannot expect perfection from humans. Its dynamic is an energizing humility which encourages cooperative and respectful participation even among those who disagree with each other.

As a result, every sensible person feels a sense of gratitude for this process. We all get to live lives better than we deserve because our individual shortcomings are transmuted into communal improvement. We find meaning — and can only find meaning — in the role we play in that larger social enterprise.

Although some people in society have physical disabilities, and other have mental disabilities, we all have a moral disability. It is this recognition about both self and other which yields gracious tolerance as the best and only way to carry out the tasks of a civilization. Any other pattern - including the hypocritical politicized tolerance which is merely intolerance used as a weapon - will lead to a collapse of civilization (although not necessarily of governmental structures: leaving a government without civilization, which is the surest formula for tyranny).

So this is where civility comes from — from a sense of personal modesty and from the ensuing gratitude for the political process. Civility is the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are and know, too, that they need the conversation. They are useless without the conversation.

When a society loses, individually and collectively, its humility, it is doomed to nastiness, which will chip away at civilization:

The problem is that over the past 40 years or so we have gone from a culture that reminds people of their own limitations to a culture that encourages people to think highly of themselves. The nation’s founders had a modest but realistic opinion of themselves and of the voters. They erected all sorts of institutional and social restraints to protect Americans from themselves. They admired George Washington because of the way he kept himself in check.

But over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness. Children are raised amid a chorus of applause. Politics has become less about institutional restraint and more about giving voters whatever they want at that second. Joe DiMaggio didn’t ostentatiously admire his own home runs, but now athletes routinely celebrate themselves as part of the self-branding process.

So, of course, you get narcissists who believe they or members of their party possess direct access to the truth. Of course you get people who prefer monologue to dialogue. Of course you get people who detest politics because it frustrates their ability to get 100 percent of what they want. Of course you get people who gravitate toward the like-minded and loathe their political opponents. They feel no need for balance and correction.

Beneath all the other things that have contributed to polarization and the loss of civility, the most important is this: The roots of modesty have been carved away.

David Brooks points us toward modesty as an essential ingredient for a civil society. Pride goes before a fall: if we are not humble, we will be humiliated when our nation weakens itself by means of its own unkind discourse. Brooks points us toward the words of Reinhold Niebuhr:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. ... Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


The word "multiculturalism" and whatever ideas may be represented by that word have been used for a number of years to represent a path for western societies to embrace diversity. Note that this implies that there are other ways to embrace diversity - better or worse - and that other societies are apparently not expected to embrace diversity. After continuous, and tiresome, talk about multiculturalism, what has it achieved? Here must broaden our perspective and not think only of America, but other nations as well - in France, years of multiculturalism culminated in Islamic youth rioting and burning buildings and cars in various parts of Paris. In England, we see radical Muslims taking center stage and encouraging the youth to embrace violence, not dialogue. In Germany, we see Muslims rejecting any thought of engaging in society, and rather choosing to isolate themselves from the communities in which they live. In Holland, we see the assassination of Theo van Gogh in response to his filming daily life among the Muslims. In Denmark, we see freedom of speech being denied, as Islamic rioters demanded that newspapers refrain from publishing political cartoons which question the beneficence of Islam. At home in the USA, African-American leaders have begun distancing themselves from the multicultural rhetoric, finding instead that there are better ways to embrace diversity and to ensure that African-Americans are truly "at home" in our society.

British Prime Minister David Cameron explained, “We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values. So when a white person holds objectionable views — racism, for example — we rightly condemn them. But when equally unacceptable views or practices have come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious, frankly even fearful, to stand up to them.”

French President Nicholas Sarkozy said, “Of course we must all respect differences, but we do not want… a society where communities coexist side by side. If you come to France, you accept to melt into a single community, which is the national community, and if you do not want to accept that, you cannot be welcome in France. The French national community cannot accept a change in its lifestyle, equality between men and women… freedom for little girls to go to school.”

Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, said, “We are a country which at the beginning of the 1960s actually brought guest workers to Germany now they live with us and we lied to ourselves for a while saying that they won’t stay and that they will disappear one day that is not the reality this multicultural approach saying that we live side by side and that we are happy about each other–this approach has failed. Utterly failed.”

What other approaches can realize the promise and potential of diversity? Immigrants and those who wish to obtain citizenship in a country should be willing to ask themselves why they have these desires, and if they are willing to embrace their new home's society. More than taking advantage of economic opportunities, those who come to the USA must consider the meanings of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. The are the documents and ideas that led to the ending of slavery, and to giving women the right to vote. Those who would reject these basic human rights and civil rights, as understood by these three foundational texts of American political structure - those who would insist rather on Sharia Law and radical Islam - should not expect to be embraced in American society.

Those who insist on hatred and violence should not expect to be affirmed by the American society which rejects hatred and violence as normal methods of cultural interaction.

The end of multiculturalism comes when we cannot have, in our public institutions, an ideology which insists that women are inferior to men, and that violence is an acceptable response to those who do not embrace one's views.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Misinterpreting the Great Depression

When we move from the level of concrete facts to larger interpretive generalizations, much mischief can occur. For this reason, it is important to do careful, and voluminous, work at the fact level before moving up to the meta-level. Historians can make radically mistaken conclusions in their categorical conclusions when they have failed to examine detailed evidence.

The Great Depression, which began in 1929, offers an example. A superficial acquaintance with the economic hardships of the era tempted one historian to write:

The Great Depression tested the fabric of American life as it had been seldom tested before or has since. It caused Americans to doubt their abilities and their values. It caused them to despair. But they weathered the test, and as a Nation, emerged stronger than ever, and we are all better today for their strength and their courage.

The first and last sentences of the above paragraph, despite some curious capitalization and syntax, are either supportable by data, or are emotive and constitute an interpretation of facts, and can thus be allowed. The middle two sentences, however, constitute assertions which would need to be supported by facts, and yet cannot be supported by facts.

In order to support his point, the author would need to produce evidence that (1) Americans doubted their abilities and values, (2) that the Great Depression caused this doubt, (3) that Americans despaired, and that (4) the Great Depression caused this despair. Such evidence cannot be found.

On the contrary, we can find evidence that, in the midst of hardship, despite hardship, and perhaps even because of hardship, Americans relied on their abilities and on their values. Such evidence would include the creativity and ingenuity which empowered people to survive these difficult years - creativity on a physical level, finding ways to make do with less than ideal supplies and materials, and creativity on a societal level, using the social structures of the time to offer material and emotional support to those who needed it. Americans continued to rely on their values, as evidenced by the continuance of societal norms based on cultural and moral tradition, and by continued eagerness with which they embraced the moral codes which directed individual choices and supported familial and social structures.

To be sure, individual exceptions can be found: those who perceived their abilities as insufficient, or those who doubted and even abandoned their values. But it would be necessary to show that these exceptions were measurably greater during the Great Depression than during other eras in history, and to show that such manifestations were caused by the Great Depression and didn't simply coincide with it. Even so, the number of exceptions would appear to be significant, and so the generalization would not stand.

Similarly with the notion that Americans despaired. Again, individual exceptions aside, as a categorical statement, we find insufficient supporting evidence. On the contrary, the resilience of the nation allowed for good humor, artistic creativity, and a form of hope or optimism in which people lived, loved, and worked, enjoying what could be enjoyed in the present, striving toward good moral character, forgiving their own failings and the failings of others, and establishing goals for the future. There was no general societal or national sense of despair.

What counts as evidence for all of the above? Evidence falls into different categories. Demographic and statistical evidence would count, offering information about everything from church attendance to divorce and suicide - with the usual caveat about the misuse and misinterpretation of statistics, per Mark Twain. Individual biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs - including oral histories and anecdotes - count as evidence. General histories of the era count, as do specific histories of a particular event, project, or series of developments: from accounts of agriculture to a chronicle of the development of the motion picture. Artifacts count as evidence: museums filled with machines, clothing, furniture, coins, etc., from the Great Depression.

Only a large amount of concrete specific evidence, and the analysis of this data, will confirm generalizations like those given above.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Arizona Assassin Motivated by Media?

In the tragic shooting which left several people, including a nine-year-old child and federal judge, dead, and which left a member of Congress severely wounded and in the hospital, the question looms: what motivated the assassin? The shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, clearly has extreme mental health problems. In search through the remains of his life, several items shed light on his potential motives.

Obsessed with politics and the Internet expression thereof, we find that he read various websites, including the Daily Kos, a notorious hate-filled site which regularly demonizes political leaders who fail to embrace its left-wing views. The Daily Kos wrote that Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the target of Loughner's attack, had a "bull's eye" on her because she has spoken against the liberal elements in her party. Loughner was encouraged by such violent language and began plotting to assassinate her.

The Daily Kos went on to tell its readers that Gabrielle Giffords should be "targeted" in the elections because she was not embracing the left-wing agenda favored by Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the Daily Kos.

Naturally, a reader in good mental health reads the violent rhetoric as merely metaphorical, and does not take words like "target" and "bull's eye" literally. But the hate speech of the Daily Kos has a different effect on those who are already in the grip of mental illness.

Loughner, a self-proclaimed fan of Karl Marx, in his delusional state, took the left-wing rants literally. In a free society, we cannot ask the media to censor itself merely because some insane individual will use words or phrases as a pretext for violence: no, we affirm the freedom of the press. But the freedom of the press also allows us to see the Daily Kos and Markos Moulitsas for what they are: merchants of hate and violence.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

What an Assassin Reads

Jared Lee Loughner is, according to early reports, likely the killer of six or seven people in Arizona, including a member of congress and a federal judge. This horrifying shooting rampage took only a couple of minutes, but resulted in traumatizing loss of life.

In such cases, we often ask, what makes this person tick? There is no simple answer, and psychologists will be mulling over the question for years to come. But we have at least one partial answer in the killer's own words. He listed some of his favorite books. He was obsessed by political and social concerns, and read, and re-read, The Communist Manifesto many times.

In addition, he listed Animal Farm and Brave New World as some of his favorites.

To what extent he properly understood what he read, we do not know. But these texts were the raw material out of which he constructed whatever twisted justification he used to explain his murderous intent.